Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Will Alternate History Ever Break into the Mainstream?

Every so often an event occurs that for a brief moment gives hope to the dream of alternate history breaking out of its niche market and gain mainstream acceptance.  Moments like these can be brought by a timely book, like Matt Ruff's The Mirage set in a world where a united Arab nations is fighting a war on terror against Christian American terrorists.  Other times it is because a popular author writing in the genre, like award-winning horror author Stephen King when he wrote 11/22/63 where a time traveler goes back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination.  These moments, however, do not always involve books.  The failed presidential campaign of Newt Gingrich brought the term "alternate history" to the lips of the mainstream media (find out more by reading the 12/5/1112/19/1112/27/111/30/12 and 2/13/12 weekly updates).

This month a new novel has once again given hope that alternate history will surge forward into the public eye.  It is The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter.  SF nerds love the emancipator and so does everyone else, which makes an alternate history about one of America's favorite presidents being impeached very compelling to the public.

Reviews of Impeachment have generally been positive.  Kirkus Reviews said "[f]ans of secret codes will enjoy watching the mind of Abigail’s legal-eagle sidekick at work, and Abigail herself makes for a grandly entertaining sleuth." Ron Charles at The Washington Post said "Carter’s delight in all this material is infectious" and "anyone should enjoy this rich political thriller that dares to imagine how events might have ricocheted in a different direction after the Civil War." Jonathan Shapiro at the Chicago Tribune did give a poor review of the novel saying "[Carter] takes a great story and makes it boring."  Meanwhile, Carter has been busy promoting the novel, going on Morning Joe and speaking at the Central Library.

It was the review by Ron Hogan at, however, that inspired to write this post.  Though he calls Impeachment "a straightforward legal thriller", he spends most of the time discussing whether alternate history will eventually replace the current zombie and vampire trends that dominate our media.  Even though he leaves a cautionary warning at the end by saying "mainstream alternate history is still in its beginning stages", he seems confident that alternate history is poised to move into the spotlight.

I think it is highly unlikely.

Now don't get me wrong.  I am not some alternate history hipster (I like Turtledove's earlier works), I would love for my favorite genre to have a large, popular following.  It would be nice to share my hobby with as many people as possible.  Despite my sincere wishes, however, the scenario is still implausible.  Why?  @earthtopus on Twitter said it best when tweeting that alternate history is "not very popular because it rewards knowledge of history."

History is one of the least popular subjects in school, probably only slightly more tolerable than Math.  How many of us have been taught history by someone who was unqualified to teach the subject, like the football coach?  Popular culture recognizes that phenomenon.  In the February 7, 2012 episode of Glee, "The Spanish Teacher", we learn that the sponsor of the glee club is unqualified to teach Spanish.  So that he can remain the sponsor of the glee club, which is obviously more important to him than his primary job, he luckily finds another subject to teach...history.  Some are trying, however, to reform the system.  In 2010, famous counterfactual history Niall Ferguson started a campaign to improve how British schools teach history.

Considering what it has to go up against, producers of alternate history content feel it necessary dumb down their product, which gives us Spike TV's failed pilot Alternate History.  Another solution to this problem is to play down the alternate history setting so much that it has little bearing on the plot, thus no one is confused by the changes in history.  The films Watchmen and Inglorious Basterds come to mind.

While I would love to agree with Hogan that alternate history is on the cusp of leaving its tiny corner of SF geekdom, with the History Channel preferring Ancient Aliens over counterfactual history, the long, rocky road to the top might just be insurmountable.

[Editor's Note: Sorry for anyone who saw this post before it was ready.  Need more coffee.]

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update, a volunteer editor for Alt Hist and a contributor to Just Below the Law. His fiction can be found at Echelon PressJake's Monthly and his own writing blog. When not writing he works as an attorney and enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana.


  1. I have to disagree Matt - I think AH will rise to the mainstream for the same reason science fiction did, as a medium for writers to address real world issues and causes, as well as tell some great stories.

    One great advantage that AH has over sci-fi is that, relativly speaking, history is written in stone. It doesn't change. Our understanding of science and the universe does however - think of all the classic sci-fi stories that involve our dashing hero rescuing a ship held hostage by Martians, or cavorting with Venusians.

    It's one reason why many more pulp leaning sci-fi authors dabble in AH - there is still plenty of room for the fantastic, whereas sci-fi is increasingly becoming restricted by our increasing knowledge of science.

    As for accusations that AH might suffer for lack of mainstream knowledge of history, I'd say no more than sci-fi suffers for the layman not knowing how to make a functioning warp drive.

  2. I agree that SF is more popular now than it has been in previous decades. Part of that is because we now have the technology to tell the stories that once only our imaginations could plausibly depict. Nevertheless, there is still so much the entertainment industry could improve upon.

    Take TV for example. Network TV has consistently shown it does not know how to handle SF products. Meanwhile, reality tv shows are cheap and popular, so they will always be picked over a big budget SF epics. If TV does have a popular SF show, it is something like "The Big Bang Theory" which relies on nerd stereotypes instead of actually portraying true fans of SF, the type who watch the Bears play one weekend and dress up like a storm trooper the next weekend.

    Furthermore, understanding hypothetical tech is not important as long as the story is good (ie Star Wars).

  3. I think AH is sadly misunderstood. I had a rejection from an agent for my alternate history thriller and she replied that they didn't handle time travel, so no thanks.

    Time travel? *Headdesk*

    I have a life-long interest in history and a master's degree in it which have given me the confidence to write my AH novels. However, the average person today thinks the Tudors are as per the TV series and the Romans are like the inhabitants of the HBO series Rome (which actually was pretty good on period detail).

    Serious AH has being written - Fatherland, Pavane, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, all of which have enjoyed success. At present, the steampunk version of AH is very much in mode as is time-travel where communities or groups of warriors and scientists shift back to change world history. AH which has a strong dollop of fantasy such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell and the Temeraire series are similarly popular.

    What to do?

    Writers have to write what they want, so they should persist and aim for the highest quality and not be tempted to pander to the lowest denominator. We should take heart when the famous ones like Stephen King and Robert Harris dip into AH. The reading public then becomes a little more aware of the genre. A good sign is that the Historic Novelists' Society includes AH in its remit and even has a session on it in their September conference.

    As for the mainstream, I think it will be a rare book that gets there, but I see no reason why we shouldn't try and conquer the middle ground.

  4. I want to second Korsgaard's comments. For me, I attack my alternate history novels with the idea of making them as historically factual as possible. No time travelers or other phenomena. Just tweak actual history a bit. This gives the story feasibility, credibility and believability. Perhaps that's just a personal bias on my part. Whenever I read an AH book (or any book for that matter) I get perturbed when the plot or section I am reading is simply not believable.

    But there are deeper reasons as well. When I look at the current state of affairs on this planet, my mind wanders into the "what if" zone ... if only this had occurred instead of that, perhaps the world would be a better place. As Korsgaard says, AH is a great "medium for writers to address real world issues and causes, as well as tell some great stories."

    I love history and want to write about it, and for me writing AH novels allows me to fulfill a higher purpose than just writing an interesting tale.

    1. Been out of the game a few weeks ... recovering from Brain Cancer. So no jokes about holes in my head :) I had some more ideas about this subject. It just needs to be more well defined. What is the goal and purpose of alternate history. For example, in Mama Mia, the young girl getting married mails three envelopes. What if she didn't? How would history alter? For better or worse? You see? Is the purpose of our altering history to make the world a more sane and calm space? How would you measure that change? The greater the change for good, the more highly it would be ranked, etc. Then you have rewards. That's how you would boom alternate history. Think about that with this site. We can make it one of the more positive sites on the internet.

      You are the lawyer. Set it up :)

    2. Sorry, meant to add that by raising its purpose, you would boom alternate history. Think about this as your mission for this site. I would be happy to contribute to such a worthy cause.

    3. I'm glad you are feeling better, Richard. I had no idea you had cancer, but I am happy you are back.

      I have two problems with your proposal. First, a plausible alternate history does not always turn out the way you want it. For example, the Sidewise winning Making History by Stephen Fry had the protagonist go back in time and kill Hitler, but when he returned to the present he found a world where Nazi Germany still won the war because the death of Hitler allowed for a charismatic and saner Fuhrer to arise who did not make the same mistakes Hitler made.

      There is also the problem of subjective. There are obviously things that could be different to our history to make the world a better place, but you may not agree with them. This applies to groups as well. The French would think a better world is one where France is a superpower that had the largest colonial empire and Britain is a primitive backwater, but would that really make history better?


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